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Patch of prairie outperforms lawn

Coneflowers and wild bergamot add color and earth-friendliness to a former lawn.
Patch of prairie outperforms lawn
August 2, 2015
Jim McCormac
Turf grass blankets 40 million acres in the United States.
That’s an area three times larger than our largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska.

It takes 8 billion gallons of water to irrigate all that grass — daily. That much water would fill more than 12,000 Olympic-sized pools.

More than 30 million tons a year of fertilizer keep the emerald carpets lush. Mountains of pesticides ensure that pesky bugs or unwanted weeds don’t despoil the lawns.

Pampered grass requires lots of cutting, and Americans’ mowers suck up 800 million gallons of gas a year. The fleet contributes almost 10 percent of our air pollution.

Lawns are little better than cement in fostering biodiversity. They are biological dead zones.

All of this is mostly for aesthetics. The manicured lawn is perpetuated by peer pressure and lack of imagination. We can do better.

In spring of 2012, we eradicated one-third acre of turf grass at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ headquarters in Columbus (where I work). The site was seeded with a mixture of native prairie plants.

The results, just three years in, are stunning.

This planted prairie is a riot of color. The blossoms of prairie coneflower and oxeye sunflower create a yellow tidal wave. Jots of purple and magenta stipple the prairie, courtesy of purple coneflower and wild bergamot. Prairie grasses add architectural majesty, and there are many other species of plants.

We have spawned a biodiversity factory. The meadow is awash with nature’s ultimate pollinators — bumblebees — and legions of other pollinators: flowerflies, moths, beetles and more. I’ve tallied about 25 species of butterflies thus far.

Monarch butterflies use the prairie as a way station in their long migrations. Some pause to lay eggs on the milkweeds. The fledgling prairie has already contributed monarchs to the world.

Interesting predators lurk among the flowers, capitalizing on the burgeoning populations of lesser insects. Tiny citrine forktail damselflies pluck bugs from the foliage. Massive green darner dragonflies juke about overhead, seizing victims on the wing. Cute jumping spiders pounce on wee prey, and gargoyle-like ambush bugs sit frozen in flowers, awaiting victims.

This food factory hasn’t gone unnoticed by the birds. Song sparrows dart into the prairie to grab caterpillars to feed their nestlings. American goldfinches seemingly burst with elation at the huge seed crop. Their joyful tunes are a constant part of the prairie’s soundscape. An indigo bunting has moved in the past two summers; the electric blue songbird winters in Central America.

The site is a thousand times more interesting than when it was a grass monoculture.

Help the planet, and pulverize some lawn. Replace it with prairie plants or native shrubs and trees. It’ll make the world a better place.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jim 


Steve Willson said…
An interesting read about the evolution of the American lawn is the book "The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession" by Virginia Scott Jenkins. A group that included the Garden Clubs of America, the U.S. Golf Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a growing lawn care industry carried out an elaborate and highly successful public relations and propaganda campaign that convinced a nation of the need for expanses of bright green, weed free, smartly manicured lawn. The text is a little dry at times, but the information is interesting enough to make you ignore that fact.
Sue said…
I wish the lawn had never come about. Our neighbors all try and have "the perfect lawn". It's ridiculous, given that we have SAND for soil. They pour (!!!!!) on the fertilizers and water and water and water. It's sickening. I'm doing my darndest to educate them on the futility of it all, but to a "Lawn" person, I'm the crack pot. Sigh.
Barbara Avery said…
I live in Worthington, Ohio. Although the green lawn is ubiquitous, a neighbor broke through the grass ceiling a year or so ago by planting a garden in the front yard (n.w. corner of Rieber and West Wilson Bridge Road). There is a no-weeds ordinance here, but I think that some enlightened city council members might consider an exception if written properly. (Ex. Prairie flowers are excluded from this ordinance. They include: long list of flowers.) My husband is a former city council member and now on the Board of Trustees of the Union Cemetery which opened a new cemetery on Flint Road. They have developed it with a lot of creative ideas (veterans’ garden, infant burial area with sensory garden, meditation area with memorial wall) including trying, unsuccessfully, to plant prairie flowers. My next door neighbor and I would like to start planting prairie flowers in the berm between sidewalk and streets, then spread to other areas. Where can we--and the cemetery-- get the correct seeds for native flowers. Barbara Avery
Jim McCormac said…
Hi Barbara, Ohio Prairie Nursery is a fabulous seed/expertise source:
Steve Jones said…
How do you get around the Health Dept.'s 11 inch rule? Designate it as a wildflower garden? I would do my whole backyard if the town would let front yard has too much shade. :-D
Anonymous said…
this is a lengthy article but VERY INFORMATIVE!!!! take the time to read it all and arm yourself with information then take up the fight to better our world.
Anonymous said…
If you want quicker (and guaranteed!)results, especially if you have a small area you wish to transform, I suggest purchasing small started plants from Natives in Harmony Nursery in Marengo. They have a huge selection of very reasonably-priced native Ohio plants, and all are raised on-site from Ohio seed stock. The owner/grower is extremely knowledgeable & friendly. I have bought a number of wonderful plants there!

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